The best that the last Congress came up with was a border fence, failing to address the pent-up frustration of about 11 million undocumented workers who labor without the rights accorded to other workers.
Last spring, this frustration was channeled into nationwide immigration marches led by Latinos. At a march that I joined in San Jose, there was a palpable sense of both outrage and optimism. A sea of white shirts emerged from homes in the largely Hispanic neighborhoods of East San Jose with banners that said: “We Are Workers, We Are Not Terrorists;” “No Human Being is Illegal,” “Legalizacion, No Exploitacion.” Then, after a rally in Guadalupe River Park, they walked back peacefully along Santa Clara Street, with banners promising, “Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote.”
And vote they did. Latino Americans turned out in record numbers on Nov. 7.
Conspicuously absent from the immigration protest marches were Asian Americans, although there are sizable numbers of undocumented Asian workers in America, too. According to a U.S. government report, the fastest growth is among Indian illegal immigrants, who number about 280,000, up 70 percent between 2000 and 2005.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s, led by African Americans, paved the way for equality for all people of color. Now Hispanics have taken the lead in the demand for immigration rights for all workers. Asian Americans are divided on the issue, but have much to lose if they sit out of this debate.
Tech workers are justifiably incensed at the prospect of illegal immigrants jumping the line while they wait their turn for the restricted H-1B visas, and survive the vagaries of the economy to hold on to jobs while negotiating a tricky and lengthy process of change of status before they get green cards. Obstacles in the tech workers’ path to citizenship should be removed too. Asian Americans can add their clout and numbers to the call for immigration reform, and bring their own demands to the table.
It’s time to do a reality check. Undocumented workers form 4.9 percent of our workforce (24 percent of farming, 17 percent of cleaning, 14 percent of construction, 12 percent of food-prep industries), according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Their labor is indispensable. Their rights shouldn’t be ignored any longer.